Mark Taylor October 17, 2010

The stolid buccaneer

As batsman, Taylor was safe as houses; as captain, he was an adventurer

Grace, flourish and a love of fireworks were the reasons Kim Hughes was my chosen one. He batted beautifully and behaved impeccably - even when beaten, which used to happen rather a lot with Australia then. So what if he was the subject of public meltdown when he quit the captaincy mid-series? Clearly this was also a very sensitive guy - even better. But then Hughes really blew it, agreeing to lead a rebel tour to South Africa. Nelson Mandela was still in jail then and we Indians took rebel tours very personally.

With Hughes gone, you couldn't turn to the Indian team and pick a favourite from among them because it was always all of them - together in the breach. As long as they just won, anyone could play hero. You would gladly line up and worship.

Exactly when Mark Taylor broke into this personal citadel of flamboyance and nationalism is tough to tell. But he's there - entrenched, like at the crease, probably chewing gum, like at slip. He wasn't stylish nor was he Indian. So how did he slip past the guards?

One season at a time, the unobtrusive way. Clearly more than the sum of his runs or the manner of his run-making, Taylor was a cricketer who could be both old-fashioned and new-fangled, belong to yesterday as much as tomorrow. A Test opener from an ancient mould, his vision and instinct came from a sharp, shiny toolbox. Taylor the batsman was a creature of unrelenting reliability, a frontman who did the dirty work so that the sons of Errol Flynn who followed had something to showboat on. Taylor the captain was an adventurous frontiersman who would have given Flynn a headache from keeping up with the twists and turns he engineered in the plot of a day's play. It was an intriguing combination, like discovering that the insurance agent next door is also world limbo-dancing champion.

Today's Aussies, skilled in the art of Waugh, and even Sun Tzu, preach to us the modern gospel of victory built on their pursuit of 300 runs a day, but it was an idea patented in the Taylor era. If Border stopped Australia from losing, Taylor taught them how to win. There was none of the trendy rubbish about mental disintegration either - Taylor never had a problem reining in his team, which included some who went on to become the Inflammables. Yet no one mistook his civility for weakness. Taylor's toughness was not a string of profanities but a state of mind. Off a cricket field, it's not a bad way to be either.

Before India was nominated the Final Frontier, there was only one forbidden kingdom - the West Indies. It was Taylor who led the first raiding party in 1995. He was minus his two opening bowlers, Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming, but orchestrated West Indies' first home series defeat in 22 years through the wicket-taking of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, (until then only a raw first-change), Paul Reiffel and Brendon Julian. The sheer daring of it.

In a business dominated by large, fragile egos and feet of clay, Taylor was Everyman. He didn't preen, gloat or, praise the Lord, sermonise, and even responded to the nickname Tubby. He was a very square left-hander with a huge appetite for runs and, evidently, good dinners. A decent, ordinary fellow but, and that was the magic, someone who made the extraordinary happen. Not so common after all.

In the 18 months and 21 innings between 1995 and 1997 that he didn't score a Test fifty, Taylor didn't miss a trick on the field. He won every series in that time, other than the one-off Test in New Delhi. Arriving in England for the 1997 Ashes tour, he was greeted by Heathrow immigration: "Mark Taylor, the captain... ah, but for how long?" An English tabloid wanted him to pose with a bat that was a metre wide. He refused. Yet he turned up match after match, to answer the inevitable questions about his form. Of course he was only being polite (an entry in his captain's diary of the time went, "Have to face the press now. Time to put on my smiley face again.") but did such a good job of it that after his final press conference of the tour, one reporter stood up and made a formal speech in appreciation of Taylor's conduct.

The trademark Taylor move of that series - a favourite piece of quiet heroism - came in the third Test. Down 0-1, still rusty despite a first-Test hundred, Taylor won the toss and had to choose: should he go with conventional wisdom, put England in on a damp Old Trafford wicket, and as opener give himself the chance to bat when conditions were better? Or should he face the unfriendly and unpleasant in order to give Shane Warne a chance to hustle England in the fourth innings? Taylor picked the tougher option and scored 2 and 1. But Australia won that Test and the next two and retained the Ashes. The captain struggled on, making only one fifty in the series after that.

So when he declared on 334 in Peshawar, eager to pursue any chance of his team's victory, and content to sit alongside Don Bradman rather than chase Brian Lara, it wasn't a moment of revelation or the great big exclamation point. It was reaffirmation, QED, full stop. Taylor, cricketer and captain, was always an honourable man. He wasn't named Mark Anthony for nothing.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2003

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on October 19, 2010, 3:25 GMT

    @Roger C - interesting question re: How would Tubby captain the current team. I think he would do better than Ponting, I think Punter should follow his nickname & try more things. The only other potential captains in the Oz side at the moment are Katich & Haddin, but both only have a couple of seasons left. I think if Tubby was captain over the Ponting era(assuming he was in his prime & not over 40yrs of age!),Oz would of won the Mohali Test, drawn the 2009 Ashes series 2all in England & not lost the Home series v SA. I say this because in all of the mentioned instances (2009 Ashes where the first test was drawn), involved long partnerships with the tail. I believe that Tubby would of found a way to get a wicket. SA(all credit to them), were twice on the ropes and had huge low order partnerships that swung momentum completely. I don't want to bag Punter - he is brilliant at captaining ODIs (possibly the best ever), but he captains Tests like ODIs,too quick to send fielders to the fence

  • Andrew on October 19, 2010, 3:14 GMT

    @warnerbasher - mate you obviously didn't watch much cricket in the Taylor era. Tubby is without doubt the best Oz captain in the 30 odd years I've watched cricket. He had an instinct that was almost supernatural, when to change bowlers, give a part timer a bowl, put a fielder here. Border used to bowl Warne mercilessly, Taylor would bring him on more sparingly, or even have him open the bowling. I witnessed a time where I think SA were doing well and he brought Ponting onto bowl, & he broke a big partnership. His slips fielding was unbelieveably good, he once won a man of the match award in a low scoring ODI where he scored 10 runs but held 4 amazing catches, I think he was defending a total around 140 off 50 overs. The only other Oz cricketer that could of been a better captain was Warne, but unfortunately @ Test level we will never know... @Shom Biswas - hard to say whether Benaud was a better captain or not, he was highly regarded for a long time in Oz.

  • sabarinath on October 18, 2010, 23:33 GMT

    @ Truemans_Ghost-Yep It is sad that you are trying to generalize few negative comments here with an identity of Tendulkar fan club.

  • Deepanjan on October 18, 2010, 19:52 GMT

    @Trueman's_Ghost and Biggus - can't agree more! I am glad it didn't come down to "Taylor lacked ambition cuz he didn't chase 375 .." . @muzmeister - everyone is entitled to their opinion - for Taylor it mattered that Bradman remained atop the list, for Hayden it didn't - doesn't make the former pathetic. In fact - a timely declaration allowed AUS a shot at the victory rather than him going on to make 400* and the test ending in a bland draw. There in lies the greatness of Taylor. Like Brearley before him, he was sometimes carried into the team purely for his tactical nous. That he was held in such high regard says something (especially in the AUS set up where players like Gillespie, Martyn and Bichel etc. were handed the pink slip faster than they could utter "decline"). His aggression was his mental steel than his foul mouth; and his opponents knew that. He inherited a strong team and left behind a legacy of a powerful one. Lovely piece Sharda! Thanks!

  • Richard on October 18, 2010, 13:58 GMT

    @Rajrele-No doubt, there was sledging when Tubbs was captain but most of the time I'm satisfied that it didn't cross the line. I suspect W.G. Grace had a bit to say back in his day, and when I was batting on the weekend the fielding team had a little go at me too, but there was nothing nasty, abusive, or physically intimidating in it and I'm cool with that. You're out in the field a long time and I'm inclined to think a little good-natured banter breaks the ice and sets the tone for a good day and after game drinks and chat. If you can't do that after stumps then it probably has gone too far and I abhor that. With regards to Tubby's captaincy the thing I always admired was his ability to feel the pulse of the game-to sense the moment for something a little unorthodox, much as Ian Chappell had for instance when he would whip Doug Walters into the attack, and bang, a wicket falls. Doug was to all intents and purposes an innocuous trundler but cracked a lot of big partnerships.

  • Rajendra on October 18, 2010, 10:26 GMT

    am surprised at some of the aussie comments here....taylor took on a good team from border who had saved the boat from capsizing.....taylor had a good team which he moulded into a great one, mind you the players still werent great or world beaters, but windies 95, 97 ashes, caning SA got mcgrath and warne on the road to greatness, many of taylors techniques and strategems are still used by ponting...waugh just came in, saw world cricket was going through a lean phase and accelerated the domination..made taylors discreet sledging overt, but had talylor not displayed his leadership from 93 to 98 aus would not have had the completeness it had for the next 10 many of his principles are proven...always bat first on a tough wicket, be ready to wear a few bouncers, dont rely on 1 or 2 bowlers...use swing, seam, line & length and spin, play only and only for results....Aus cricket gained big time from him, but you cant say that he was anti sledging, he allowed it cleverly....

  • D on October 18, 2010, 8:51 GMT

    Allan Border built an Australian team then Mark Taylor brought into the Australian team a desire to win overseas (outside of England) , they started giving some value to performances in to the sub continent then they logically progressed to a ruthless level under Steve Waugh. Taylor was the perfect fit between the other two greats.

  • Arosha on October 18, 2010, 7:24 GMT

    Mark Taylor is simply the man who transformed a very competitive side yet to beat more fancied WIs into a set of world beaters who would beat any side on a regular basis.At least he's the man to carried the mantle from Border to Steve Waugh, thereby nurturing some of then raw tallents such as Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Glen McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Justin Langer, etc. into masterful players who would become considerable forces in the game 5-10 years later.Allan Border is definitely the pioneer; he's the man who initiated it.Taylor took the mantle, & made sure the efforts of his predecessor wouldn't go in vain & would only get better in years to come. Steve Waugh then carried the mantle for few years. And then we ended up seen the peak, in Ricky Ponting's era.During 2002-2007 the Austrailians were simply the best in the world, no one could match them except for few miccups, expecially the Ashes in 2005.It's true that they are no longer the force they used to be since then after WC2007.

  • Kunal on October 18, 2010, 6:53 GMT

    @cricket__fan: Dude, go and read some cricket articles of the 1990s. If you don't know Sharda Ugra or Rohit Brijnath, get some education. You are a philistine in the universe of Indian-cricket writing. Wake up!

  • Grant on October 18, 2010, 6:30 GMT

    Biggus, Amen to all you say!

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